Thursday, 25 February 2016

Vanishing Point Herbs

This is a literal vanishing point:

By Jakec - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

(Incidentally, who would want to be attributed for a photo which is dead easy to acquire or take like this?  It's not even a proper vanishing point).

The vanishing point is the location in an image using perspective where parallel lines appear to converge to meet, as I expect you know.

Ben Elton used the term "vanishing point" metaphorically in STARK to refer to a situation where the planet could no longer support human life without an artificially constructed environment.  This phrase stuck in my head and it occurred to me that there are various situations which this could apply to.  For instance, there were claims in Germany a few decades ago that it wasn't safe to breastfeed because of the level of dioxins found in breastmilk, and since breastfeeding could be seen as fundamental to human survival - anything else is an  artificial intervention even if necessary, and I say that as someone both of whose children were born by C-section so I'm not being judgemental here - if dioxins were at such a level in the environment, it means you get into a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

So far, so depressing.  However, I'm not saying this is actually true, just that the concept is useful.  Also, I am aware that this is about to be the second post in a row on this blog which is arguing against using particular herbs medicinally.  Here we go then.

You will recognise these:

as hops, Humulus lupulus.  Since I'm from Kent, hops are as familiar to me as apples and they were ubiquitous in my childhood.  When I was about six, I boiled up a decoction in the back garden from hops I found lying around on the road outside my house.  This is the kind of incident you look back on with hindsight so you can say to yourself "See?  Even back then I was always going to be a herbalist", but in fact it's far from inevitable that that was what I was going to do with my life and if I'd done something else, some other incident would come to mind which would illustrate why I was always going to be a hairdresser or something.  I could go into this in more detail but it doesn't really fit this blog.

Hops are of course related to Cannabis and it's therefore hardly surprising that they're psychoactive.  They're also related to stinging nettles, which are quite similar to Cannabis in appearance and uses.  Stinging nettles are a useful source of fibre for textiles, just as hemp is for canvas, hence the name.  Anyway, back to hops.  Cultivated hops are generally bred for bitterness so that they are more efficient in flavouring beer.  In the past, other herbs were used for that purpose, such as rosebay willowherb, Epilobium angustifolium, which as you can see from this image is clearly related to fuchsia (which I used to eat by the way):

By kallerna - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Breeding anything to enhance one feature tends to do so at the expense of others, so hops bred for bitterness are good liver tonics, being bitter, but not necessarily as good for their other purposes.  This generally means that 

Until today, I have never used hops medicinally as a herbalist.  At first sight, they seem to be pretty groovy in various ways.  They're bitters, phytoestrogenic, sedative and help sleep and anxiety, so on the face of it they sound pretty good, but there's a fairly big caveat among all this.  They are contraindicated in depression because they make it worse, supposedly, and in overdose they have a paradoxical effect, like many other drugs, of causing the very symptoms they relieve in therapeutic doses.  Since insomnia is often connected to anxiety and depression, and since there is probably a strong link between the brain chemistry of anxiety and that of depression, that effectively means that for the most part, hops are prima facie pretty useless in those respects.  This is what I mean by a vanishing point herb.  The herb is supposedly useful for the very conditions which people with problems for which it's contraindicated tend to have as well as those conditions, so it's neither use nor ornament.

I am prone to depression and anxiety, so if I wanted to test hops in this respect, I would make a good subject provided I had sufficient perspective to recognise that my mood might be contributed to by the action of those herbs.  I have a hypothesis about hops I wanted to test.  I suspect that they are not across the board depressant, but have actions which are mistaken for depression, in two respects.

Tearfulness can easily be mistaken for depression, and a lot of the time depressed people might cry a lot too.  However, crying is also, to my mind, often the excretion of emotion - catharsis.  If you can cry, it's a safety valve which actually helps you to overcome depression.  The analysis of the composition of emotional tears, as opposed to the kind of tears you get from, say, cutting onions, reveals that they are different.  In particular, for some reason they are high in manganese, to the extent that they have been known to stain contact lenses pink, which you might think would help.  Here is an example of a manganese compound, manganese (II) chloride:

I think that it's possible that tearfulness has been mistaken for depression here, because hops are phytoestrogens, and oestrogens can make it easier to cry.

The other reason I think this may have been misjudged is that it may well make many people's depression worse, but like many drugs this reflects sexism in the testing process.  This happens a lot in pharmacology when drugs are tested on exclusively male animals.  The majority of these animals are also of course non-human, which doesn't help either, but women experience more adverse drug reactions than men do, or at least report them.  Since women get sick and men die as well, this may not be so, but it would certainly make more sense if it turned out the difference was due to inadequate testing on slightly more appropriate subjects, viz. female non-human animals.  Obviously they do go on to test them on humans but women are also under-represented in clinical trials.  The reason for this is that there is more short-term temporal variation in female physiology than in male, or at least this is understood to be so.  This fact has also, incidentally, been used to explain man flu.

When men are given an oestrogen, it apparently makes them depressed, among other things, all negative.  When women experience an increase in oestrogen levels, it may or may not cause depression, depending on various factors including what oestrogens are involved.

I have just taken around 50% more than the highest recommended dose of Humulus lupulus and I am clearly not feeling down in any way right now even though I have a cold, was already tired and there are various depressing things happening in my life.  I think this suggests that the female brain is not depressed by hops, but the male is, or at least that the male brain is more depressed by them than the female one, and the reason people think it is may be sexist drug testing and misinterpretation of "symptoms" which are not only not indicative of depression but aren't even problematic, again due to sexism.

Back to the idea of vanishing point herbs though.  Here's another one:

By MPF - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

These are juniper "berries", which are of course used in gin, which has itself been used medically in a manner I won't go into here.  Juniper is an unusual plant in several ways.  Firstly, human food and by extension medicine from the vegetable kingdom is generally from flowering plants, which reflects our evolution as primates after the appearance of that type of plant.  Secondly, this is an example of a non-flowering plant which seems to produce fruit.  A closely related plant I do use a lot is yellow cedar, Thuja occidentalis, which is not eaten as food as far as I know.  Juniper is also, again as far as I know, the only example of a spice from a non-flowering plant.

Juniper "berries" are not berries but cones, like pine cones.  Conifers don't really produce fruit as we understand it, although the distinction can be rather academic as they clearly do produce plant organs which contain seeds, as with yew berries.

Juniper berries are diuretic because at therapeutic doses they induce mild inflammation in the kidneys, which increases blood flow to the kidney and therefore, ideally, more urine being filtered out by the kidneys.  That said, one of the important functions of the kidneys is to reabsorb urine rather than produce it, which sounds counterintuitive until you realise that damaged kidney tubules tend to produce excess urine because their epithelium has healed to less specialised epithelium.  There are enough reasons for diuresis, to be sure, but if there are already kidney problems it generally doesn't make sense to me to do something else to irritate them.  Consequently I never use juniper berries, mainly because of the same "vanishing point" effect as hops, except that this time it doesn't look like it's rescued by the possibility of sexism in the research.  Again, it's an example of a herb whose use is often ruled out by the fact that it may cause problems for the very type of person it's meant to help.

Apart from juniper and hops, I can't think of other examples of "vanishing point" herbs.  On the whole, the herbs I use I believe in, but cognitive dissonance would lead me to do so, wouldn't it?  Another question is of which herbs are actually completely ineffective because they don't do very much, and I'm pretty sure I can think of an example of that too, but if I mentioned it that would take away the placebo effect, so I won't be doing that!